Samsung jumps on smartwatch bandwagon with Galaxy Gear

Samsung officially announced its Galaxy Gear smartwatch Wednesday, revealing a slick slab of wearable computing that will initially work only with the company’s just-announced Galaxy Note 3 smartphone and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition tablet.

Limiting the Gear’s compatibility to just two niche devices is a curious move on Samsung’s part, and suggests that the company either wants to goose sales of its Note products or simply couldn’t offer compatibility with its much more mainstream mobile gear at launch. Samsung says that Note II, Galaxy S III, and Galaxy S4 users will get a software upgrade after launch that will allow them to use the Gear.

At first, the Gear is compatible only with the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition, both announced Wednesday.

“I believe it will become a new fashion icon around the world,” said JK Shin, Samsung’s president and CEO, at a launch event in Berlin Wednesday.

In terms of raw hardware, the Galaxy Gear is a 1.5-by-2.2-inch rectangular slab that’s constructed from stainless steel, measures 0.43 inch thick, and weighs 2.6 ounces.

You can control the Gear by voice or by swipe and tap gestures on its 1.63-inch touchscreen.

All data and notifications appear on a full-color, 1.63-inch touchscreen. The Super AMOLED screen boasts a 320-by-320-pixel resolution, and the battery is estimated to last through 25 hours of moderate use before needing a charge. The Gear is powered by a custom 800MHz single-core processor, and includes a gyroscope and accelerometer for physical gesturing and pedometer functions.

The Gear also manages to cram in both a 1.9-megapixel camera and speakers—the camera is integrated into the wrist strap, while the speakers are tucked into the clasp. The Gear features a solitary button, which when pressed takes you to the home screen. You control all other commands and functions via the touchscreen by a series of swipes (up to launch the camera, sideways to access apps and functions, down to go back).

Pranav Mistry demonstrates the gesture for making a phone call. Yes, it looks like you're talking on an invisible phone.

Raising your Gear-clad hand to your ear enables the call feature. Although you can place (and answer) calls using the Gear’s on-screen dialer, wrist-strap speaker, and two noise-canceling microphones, you can’t use it to read or respond to email—the watch will display notifications, but you must view the messages themselves on a Note 3.

The Gear can, however, understand S Voice commands to call your friends, send texts, set an alarm, and check on the weather. It also offers a Find My Device feature, which in conjunction with an Auto Lock enhancement will lock your smartphone any time the Gear is more than 5 feet away. It can also make a lost smartphone beep, illuminate, and vibrate so that you can locate it quickly.

The Gear will run a variety of apps, including some with augmented-reality features.

On the software side, the Galaxy Gear runs a modified version of Android and syncs to compatible Android devices via a Galaxy Gear Manager interface. The Galaxy Gear will come preloaded with a number of apps, including Evernote, Glympse (location sharing), Line (a messaging service), Path (a social network), Pocket (a “save for later” service), and two fitness apps—MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper. Samsung announced that users can download more apps through the Gear app store, confirming rumors that the company would be eschewing the Google Play store.

To take photos with the Gear, you simply aim and swipe the screen. While 1.9 megapixels won’t get you as far as “real” photography, they will facilitate what Samsung is calling “memography”—quick, spur-of-the-moment image capture. And, hey, who are we to turn our noses up at a camera inside a watch strap, let alone one that captures images in a single gesture?

You can take photos with the Gear's wrist-strap-mounted 1.9-megapixel camera.

Pictures can transfer automatically to a smartphone with Bluetooth 4.0 BLE. The Gear itself also offers an image browser, so you can see some of the pictures you’ve taken (as well as any you’ve transferred to the watch from the smartphone). And the camera doesn’t just take pictures—it also has augmented-reality functions that can translate foreign languages into your mother tongue, and provide more detailed information about a product you’re looking at.

“We want the possibilities of what you do with your Gear to be endless,” said Pranav Mistry, Samsung’s director of research, at the Berlin event.

There isn’t nearly as much fitness integration as was rumored. Still, the Gear does include a built-in pedometer to provide data to compatible fitness apps. Samsung has already dipped its toe into the fit-tech waters with S Health, so it’s surprising that the company didn’t announce any compatibility with that feature.

Galaxy GearImage: Martyn Williams
The Gear will come in six colors at launch: jet black, mocha gray, wild orange (shown), oatmeal beige, rose gold, and lime green.

The Gear will be available in six colors, but it’s not as durable as you’d expect for a device that sits on your wrist. It’s rated IP55, which means that it can withstand dust and water jets for a few minutes. Sony’s recently announced SmartWatch 2 is rated IP57, meaning that it can withstand submersion in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes.

In all, the Galaxy Gear looks to be a great companion for a crazy-large, 5.3-inch, phone-tablet hybrid. The smartwatch itself is launching in the United States in October, and compatibility with other Samsung devices is also scheduled for that month. But the extended support can’t come soon enough: The Note line has been a surprising success for Samsung, but the Galaxy S III and S4 smartphones are the company’s mainstays, and they give the Gear its best chance of becoming a legitimate smartwatch “thing.”

Subscribe to the Smartphone News Newsletter

Comments